With spring around the corner, animal shelters and rescuers know what's coming: kittens, lots of them. With the community's help, Kern County Animal Services can go into kitten season prepared. Lending a hand involves hard work and dedication, but the reward of kitten snuggles will be purr-fect.

On Saturday, KCAS will hold a Spring Foster Program Shower, where people can come to the Fruitvale Avenue shelter and get more information on becoming a foster guardian to animals in need. Those who can't foster can help by donating money or bringing necessary items like crates, puppy pads, non-clumping litter, canned food, toys and heating pads.

"Anybody can get involved at any comfort level," said Dr. Kimberly Wilson, the shelter's veterinarian. "If you don't have time to foster, you can buy supplies. If you don't have money for supplies, you can volunteer. There are so many different levels."

Because of donations, KCAS is able to give people in the foster program everything they need to care for the animals, most of whom are kittens too young for adoption. The shelter also covers any veterinary expenses; the only thing required of a foster guardian is time, space and a little TLC until the felines reach an adoptable age and weight.

"It's a short-term commitment," said Nick Cullen, KCAS director. 

Once they can be placed into a home, fostered kittens are adopted out at KCAS and off-site locations, like Petco. Foster kittens are adopted at 97 percent, Cullen said; the other 3 percent are typically not adopted because they failed to thrive.

"In years past, there was no chance; they wouldn't have even stayed in the shelter," Cullen said, explaining that kittens under 8 weeks without a mom can legally be euthanized right away. "This is an area where we can make up the most ground toward becoming a no-kill Kern."

Anyone who is 18 or older, has reliable transportation and can devote a space to foster kittens away from any resident pets (who must be at least 1 year old) can foster. Foster coordinator Deanna Alwahabi, who started the foster program three years ago, is happy to help along the way.

"You do not need to know how (to bottle feed)," she said. "We will show them how. It's more than just giving them love. It's feeding them, stimulating them."

Kittens need to be fed and stimulated to go to the bathroom every two to four hours, depending on their age, so fosters will need to be able to meet those needs. Many current foster guardians care for kittens while having a full-time job, and some even take them to work to continue care there.

"It's good therapy!" said Lisa Richardson, shelter supervisor, of kittens in the workplace.

And if foster guardians fall in love with a kitten in their care, they have the right of first refusal and can claim the kitty as their own before it officially goes up for adoption. 

Right now, the shelter has about 50 to 70 "core families," Alwahabi said, but the program could use a lot more. In some cases, a foster family might take in a mother cat and her kittens, which is a less demanding task, since the mother does the hard work of feeding and stimulating her kittens.

Motherless kittens make up the majority of animals in need of fosters, but there are often special-needs dogs and cats who need foster homes too. Sometimes there are puppies in need, but they have wider rescue safety nets in the community, Wilson said. 

Programs like fostering, affordable spay and neuter and TNR (trap-neuter-release) have been essential in saving animals in Kern County. In the last five years, the county went from putting down 75 percent of animals in its shelters to saving 72 percent. It's a reversal Cullen and KCAS staff are proud of, but they won't be happy until Kern is truly a no-kill county.

Fostering saves around 1,300 animals from a shelter death each year, Cullen said, but the 1,200-plus kittens it's not able to save (due to lack of manpower and foster families) represent about 25 percent of all shelter deaths. Solving the problem by amassing an army of foster families would dramatically reduce the number of county shelter deaths.

Another solution being developed is a new foster kitten nursery, which will open within a few months in a soon-to-be-announced county building. There, people who cannot commit to full-time fostering but who want to help motherless kittens can volunteer for shifts.

"We'll need more fosters and volunteers than we've ever had before," Cullen said.

Helping all KCAS fostering efforts is a $225,000 grant from the Petco Foundation, to be used over the course of three years to expand the program, Cullen said. But the shelter always needs more help, and that's where they're hoping the community comes in on Saturday with donations and foster homes. 

"There are four ways to help: adopt, foster, volunteer and donate," Cullen said. "If they come on that day, they can do any one of those things, and all four contribute to a no-kill Kern County."

Kelly Ardis can be reached at 661-395-7660. Follow her on Twitter at @TBCKellyArdis.

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